In March 2021 my book, The New Power University. The Social purpose of higher education in the 21st century, was published by Pearson. Below is an extract from the preface to give you a flavour of my case. The short video is a 'public narrative' for the New Power University. Please do order and share with friends and colleagues.
From time to time a generation is faced with some very big choices. We are currently living through one of these times. Failures in globalism, the rise of populism, existential pressures around climate and resources, embedded racism and inequities, the shift form the analogue world to the digital one, and most recently a devastating global pandemic, all contribute to a potentially overwhelming sense of systemic change. History suggests that there are long-term economic cycles where a number of innovations – social and physical – come together to reset society. We saw this with the introduction of the steam engine preceding the industrial revolution and we are witnessing a similar revolution today with the ubiquitous application of networked technologies. At these moments of change – these ‘in-between times’ – the future can go one of two ways, with the potential for the world to follow a more negative and destructive path (as we saw in the 1930s), or take a more humanitarian and sustainable turn, as I personally hope will occur today.
The choices that universities make at this time will play a critical role in determining which path we all take together as a society. On the one hand, universities might choose to be stand back and largely be passive bystanders, remote from the world around them. On the other, universities will each embark on a deliberate evolution of their public purpose, in the same way that such adaptations have happened over millennia. The New Power University argues that the latter transformation is an urgent change that is both necessary and needed. Necessary as the social contract, under which universities have their licence to operate from politicians and public alike, is broken. Needed as the external environment they exist within is at a moment of flux which both threatens and invites opportunity.
In making this change, I make the case that the next step in the long history of universities is through embracing the concepts of ‘new power’. New Power is an idea originally put forward by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans in 2018 in their book of that title and captures and explains some of the tensions I have felt throughout my career. It provides, in my view, a way to refresh and renew that social contract between universities and society. Universities are instinctively old power institutions where power is “jealously guarded, closed, inaccessible and leader-driven” (as Timms and Heimans put it). Old power is a currency that is traded, whilst new power is fluid like a current that connects and energieses. As such new power is made by many, networked, open and relies on short term conditional affiliations. Examples of new power include contemporary movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and MeToo, commercial start-ups such as Airbnb and Uber, and other mass participation events such as crowd-sourcing the analysis of UK politician expenses by the Guardian newspaper.
In The New Power University, I use this framing to reimagine what the social purpose of the university should be in the 21st century. In doing so, I illustrate how the New Power University can resolve the very real tensions in the trade-offs that shape its purposes, including social vs economic goods, universalism vs elitism, collectivism vs competition, autonomy vs system dependence. All of this gets to the ‘soul’ of the New Power University. As such, the book is both a warning against the complacency of the old power, and a voice for the many who see opportunity and necessity for radical change in universities.
The book is split into four sections. I open by introducing the case for the New Power University, by using three ideas that frame my central argument, namely that universities need to change and change rapidly if they are to adapt to the 21st Century. I then locate this argument by briefly recounting the history of the evolving purpose of universities, suggesting that the New Power University is the next step in that journey.
Section Two has three chapters that explore the three missions of a university: learning, research and social responsibility. I argue that these three missions are of equal weight and mutually reinforce one another. The introduction of ‘social responsibility’ as a mission of the university will be explored and justified, acknowledging that not everyone will agree with this articulation (but noting that many universities were actually founded on this principle).
The third section describes the people that make up the New Power University – that is the students, academic faculty and professional staff, and various wider communities which, collectively, give universities their licence to operate and enable them to deliver their purpose. This section examines their motivations, expectations, values and skills and how these are and will need to change.
This final section develops the thinking around missions and people and explore the conduct of the New Power University. I argue that the existing organisational structures of the university is no longer fit for purpose and that this has implications on approaches to governance. The final chapter makes the case that the New Power University can no longer ‘sit on the fence’ on the contested political and social issues of the day and has to become an advocate on issues that matter to its communities.
Overall my argument is a mix between a critique of the current managerialism that defines contemporary old power universities, a manifesto for the future New Power University and a provocation to stimulate the higher education sector into change, and rapid change, to ensure that the institution of the university survives and flourishes through the 21st Century. I know that the ideas put forward will delight and disgust my colleagues in equal measure. There are ideas that I suspect will be enthusiastically embraced and others that will be rapidly repelled. That is fine – but a debate is desperately needed so I would be delighted for these ideas to be challenged and shaped as part of that deliberation.